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Originally published January 29, 2010 at 9:39 AM | Page modified January 29, 2010 at 8:02 PM

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One Night Count finds slightly fewer homeless living on streets of King Co.

Despite the recession, the number of homeless people sleeping on the streets of King County is slightly lower than it was at this time last year, according to the county's annual One Night Count of the homeless not living in shelters.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Despite the recession, the number of homeless people sleeping on the streets of King County is slightly lower than it was at this time last year, according to the county's annual One Night Count of the homeless not living in shelters.

The count, conducted between 2 a.m. and 7 a.m. Friday morning, found 2,759 people living in vehicles, under freeways, behind Dumpsters, inside doorways, on buses, inside cardboard boxes and in homeless encampments. Last year, volunteers counted 2,826, but the area canvassed was a bit smaller than this year.

Officials cautioned that the count offers only a snapshot of an ongoing crisis.

"It's a cliché to say it's unacceptable," said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, which has run the count since its beginning in 1980. "But it is, of course, unacceptable that in one of the wealthiest countries of the world we have children sleeping in cars and mentally disabled sleeping in doorways."

An estimated 6,000 people live in the county's emergency shelters and transitional housing programs, meaning there were nearly 9,000 homeless in King County last night, said Bill Block, project director for the Committee to End Homelessness. About three times that number are homeless in the course of a year, he added.

The count is generally understood to represent a minimum number because many homeless are very good at hiding, officials said.

Most homeless are in Seattle

Official statistics on the number of homeless who stayed in shelters Thursday night will not be available for several weeks.

The vast majority of the unsheltered homeless, 1,986, were found in Seattle, Eisinger said. That's a slight increase over last year, when 1,976 were counted.

In all, 973 volunteers participated in the 14-city count, which is mandatory for governmental bodies that receive federal funding to combat homelessness.

Last year, the county received $24 million. They used the money to maintain emergency shelters and create 1,100 new units of permanent housing for those that had been homeless.

The count is also used as a way for officials to determine how well their housing programs are working. Friday morning, officials were hesitant to describe the result as good news because there are still thousands of homeless.

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"When we say a decrease, we try to be hopeful," Eisinger said. "But we know that more than 2,700 people slept outside last night, and that is way too many. And we know that 6,000 people slept indoors, in some cases not even on mats but on the floor."

Tough times

Still, the number is a positive sign after a year in which the county lost 23,000 jobs, according to a state report released last week.

The Washington State Employment Situation Report found that more than 94,000 King County residents were on unemployment in December, 8.5 percent of the workforce. In Dec. 2008, 5.6 percent were on unemployment.

Foreclosures have also skyrocketed in the last year, with filings in 2009 up nearly 60 percent over 2008 in King County, according to a RealtyTrac report released earlier this month. One in 80 county homes received some kind of default or foreclosure notification in 2009.

The decrease in homelessness is also a step forward for the county's Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, now in its fifth year. The plan, which focuses on moving the homeless from shelters to supportive housing units that are linked to social services, has been successful but will not come close to eliminating homelessness within 10 years, officials said.

"Homelessness is an ambitious problem that cannot be solved with a 10-year plan," said Joshua Okrent, a spokesman for the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. "It's about doing what we can."

Brian Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com

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